The Death Of A Thousand Lashes

For a significant part of my working life, I laboured in the print and broadcast news media, and I still provide media consultancy to various organisations. More than anyone, I know how the voice of the people is deeply unrepresentative of the wider population. But nowhere is that clearer than among those who comment on literature for a living.

Antipathy to genre fiction is deep-seated, and goes beyond mere dislike to a belief that it should be despised and derided at all costs as a way to keep up standards. In The Publisher Files, Tim Holman identifies two recent examples of snooty dismissal of genre fiction and very decently attempts to give these people the benefit of the doubt.

There is a line of thought that the majority of literary criticism is a class thing – an unconscious way for a self-perceived elite to control and contain the masses. And to listen to Mark Lawson’s destruction of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol on Radio 4 I can quite believe this – a programme so sickeningly smug, it made you consider a multi-millionaire author, perhaps the biggest-selling author in the world, as the poor underdog.

Many people in genre publishing like to rise above the constant sniping, stating these people just don’t get imaginative fiction. What can you do when they claim there is no good SF or fantasy, just “well-constructed yarns” or “entertaining nonsense”?

But there is a serious issue here. As Tim points out in his blog, it strikes at the heart of any attempt to grow the audience beyond the core readership. The disproportionately loud voice of these people creates a meme that seeps out through the population – that all genre fiction is low-brow, rubbish, not worth your valuable time. It’s corrosive, and it creates an unconscious collective standard. It’s human nature to be influenced by majority view. Buyers make choices based upon perceived value and if they are constantly told something has no value they will choose something else.

That will hamper any attempt publishers make to break fantasy and SF into the mainstream readership. For that reason alone, it can’t be ignored. It needs to resisted, harshly, at all times, and it needs to have the people at the top of the publishing ladder leading the way.

0 thoughts on “The Death Of A Thousand Lashes”

  1. I agree: the majority of genre-snobbery I have encountered has been of the ‘literary > genre’ type. I did hear someone state at Fantasycon though that they never read literary fiction as they could not stand it (they worked in genre publishing, and it was said on a panel, but don’t ask me to repeat who, I’ll probably only attribute it to the wrong panellist). Now, that’s a lot of books to dismiss! But I do witness the odd bit of such reverse-snobbery from time to time – take some discussions of Clarke shortlists and their crossover appeal, for example.

    I’m wondering, if these are attitudes that we will only see becoming more and more embedded?

  2. Could not agree more!

    The assumption is that all Fantasy is about Hobbits and all science fiction fans speak fluent Klingon. And these ‘truths’ spouted by the simpering ranks of LitCrit are then taken up by the Emporer’s court as gospel truth.

    And so the circle moves.

    There are several ‘literary’ authors that can be as much to blame – who protest long and loud that they do not stopp to writing SF or Fantasy – oh no – they construct futuristic alternate realities…

  3. Hi Mark

    I agree with you on all these points above – the “ignorance” about genre writing is genuinely disconcerting.

    It breaks my heart as there is so much to love and enjoy with a range of authors who are not only multi-talented but who in turn inspire new writers – both genre and mainstream commercial fiction.

    All I can say is, I am glad I have an imagination and that I’m a genre reader. Can you imagine how positively dull it must be not being able to break out of your readership box that’s lined with preconceptions?

  4. I think it is hard to get back at “Literati” snobbery. The only way is to ignore their pompous remarks and actually just write good work, and prove them wrong. What really galls is people like Margaret Atwood who write SF but are too up their own bottom to call it SF.

  5. Donna – it will become more embedded, I think.

    And Jan and Stephen – yes, the problem lies as much with authors as with critics.

    However, Stephen, at the risk of being controversial, I don’t believe that having genre elements makes a story genre. The genesis of genre SFF and literary SFF is very different, as is, often, the intent.

  6. Tim Holman’s parting words are spot on:

    “The challenge, perhaps, is not to argue that these generalizations might be incorrect; perhaps the real challenge is to make sure that they don’t arise in the first place.”

    It galls me immensely that there is such snobbery about genre fiction yet it is a completely different story for the film industry. Why is it absolutely acceptable to go and watch Pirates of the Carribean and to talk at length (in a film arty way) about the amazing production and breathtaking scenery of LotR? But get caught reading a genre book and people look at you like you are just a bit weird in a sad way. That said, I hold my head high when asked what I like to read even when some say to me “oh you’re into the real full on fantasy aren’t you?” Makes me laugh. I am slowly enlightening people though by lending them certain author’s books ;-)

    Sadly I think it may not help when publishers put the sterotypical covers on the fantasy books. Hopefully they are moving away from this.

  7. It’s a valid point and a noble effort, but a futile battle I think. It’s too easy for others to tear down and cast a negative review. Not to mention, in today’s day and age, it’s the “cool” thing to see how creative and vindictive you can be.

    Not to say that a well done, constructively critical review should not be welcomed, but I’ve seen many take it well past those boundaries. Writers (as does every such profession) need to be shown what they’re doing wrong and need to understand exactly why they’re doing it wrong.

    I %100 agree with you about the leaders of each respective genre being at the forefront, swords raised and leading the charge.

  8. Disprepdog has the right idea about changing peoples views by lending them books they probably would never read.
    I do the same.
    There is so much snobery about genre fiction I just wish the people who comment would try reading a range of authors first and not just Dan Brown.
    Personally I don’t care what other people think about what I read. I feel sorry for those who don’t read it they miss out on a lot good stuff.

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